Almost 20 years ago I started working at FPA running a project for boys and young men in South Wales. Much of the anti-sexist work that preceded this had started explicitly or implicitly from a position of blaming boys and young men for misogyny and sexism without recognising the impact of the way we socialise them to behave in particular ways and then criticise them when they demonstrate these behaviours.
FPA project, Strides, offered a different approach which is now well accepted as a helpful (or even the right) approach. It was about helping young men to feel good about themselves, to deconstruct gender stereotypes and to develop a healthy sexuality, a positive and respectful view of themselves and others. It was about working to develop positive, pro-social behaviours including a deeply held understanding of consent. The evidence showed the project had a positive impact on confidence and attitudes, from which you can infer the likelihood of positive behaviours. Key to that success was a positive starting point of liking and trusting young men from which dynamic engagement and conversations could take place.
There is rightly and thankfully a lot of concern about gender based violence in the UK including domestic violence, sexual exploitation and rape. This concern is heightened by worries about the impact of sexualised imagery, pornography and the use of social media. I attended the BASHH OGM this month and there was a really important session on Child Sexual Exploitation in which the Children's Commissioner, AVA Women's Project and CEOP all presented fantastically important work. As I listened the presentations I was reflecting on some of the professional challenges we all face in addressing these issues without;
- Focusing so single mindedly on the problems that we focus on intervention once it has happened and not enough on preventing it happening - to avoid this we must leave enough space to nurture, support and develop positive behaviours and a meaningful understand of what consent is. Demonstrating the positive, for example what consent and empowerment looks like is vital
- Adopting the ostrich position and thereby ignoring that men do behave badly and or believing women have equal rights and feminism has 'done its job'.
- Reverting to an 'all boys are bad' approach which will not serve anybody well.
The time is right to reexamine public policy, to strengthen our interventions and prevention approaches and to ask ourselves whether the current approach will truly transform our culture so ALL children and young people are safe to develop and grow with confidence. Are they able to be empathic and be genuinely respectful with each other and understand that differences between people contributes positively to our society? Are they able to be confident in themselves and choose from all the options that are theoretically open to them, rather than the ones that are actually open to them owing to gendered expectations?
Most sensible adults would probably say we are a long way off. Most would probably agree we need to do much more right from the start to empower boys and girls, young men and young women to play and learn together as they develop through puberty, adolescence and into adulthood.
I don't have the answers, but I do know we need it needs to be a focus. In the meantime some of the things I have seen in the UK and in other countries over the last two decades that appear to make a difference for young people;
- Trusting and believing in the potential of all children and taking responsibility for translating that belief and trust as your starting point for good conversations, education and support
- A strong focus on gender and inequalities in all public policy making
- Thinking about the language we use and the assumptions underneath it to create culture change and ensure it is inclusive of all children including those who are LGBT
- Recognising that gender and sexual violence is an important issue and prioritising PSHE education curriculum time to promote an active understanding of consent; empathy and understanding between children; the unacceptability of violence; talking about structural inequalities and the impact of these on people's abilities, desires and opportunities
- Spend time at the beginning of the school year fertilising and nurturing mixed and diverse friendships across year groups and working hard to make playground spaces enjoyable and equitable environments for everyone
- Looking at messages about gender and sexuality in the media - at home, at youth clubs, at school, at church
- Using the arts for example photography projects to explore issues of gender and sexuality
- Proactively getting boys and girls involved in peer support and mentoring schemes so they can learn from each other
- Tackle sexual, homophobic and transphobic prejudice and bullying along with all other forms of bullying making sure to be clear about the reasons it is unacceptable and be explicit about acceptable behaviours
- Opening up our own minds so when our own inbuilt thinking and way of processing the world along gendered lines (as it inevitably will sometimes given the strength of our conditioning) kicks in we have the courage to challenge ourselves, to discuss it with others and to learn from it so we can be part of the change we want to see.
In Brook's strategic framework we set out our commitment to 'setting high expectations for young people so they can have high expectations for themselves'. Our professional and personal understanding of gendered lines and expectations are central to this. We must not get side tracked by a single focus on internet pornography. Creating a culture in which all children and young people live equal, happy lives side by side, hand in hand runs much deeper and is fundamental to everything we do. Its a challenge we must all pay attention to.
There is a poster called 'for every girl' which you can find here www.crimethinc.com/tools/posters/gender_subversion_front.pdf